War On Work — Not So Much

Chuq Von Rospach, who is unquestionably a smart guy, takes issue with the recent article in Mother Jones by Mac McClelland exposing the back-breaking and dehumanizing conditions in an unnamed 3rd party logistics warehouse. Reading Chuq’s comments I honestly have to question if he read the actual article rather than the summary at The Verge that he links to.

Chuq assumes, as does The Verge that McClelland is specifically referring to an Amazon fulfillment center:

The Mother Jones piece seems to be trying to demonize Amazon in a quiet way for how hard they work their warehouse people.

However, McClelland specifically states that she isn’t trying to demonize one specific company. She writes:

…I’d smudge identifying details of people and the company itself. Anyway, to do otherwise might give people the impression that these conditions apply only to one warehouse or one company. Which they don’t.

But that is really a minor quibble. It’s almost certain that, even if the warehouse McClelland worked in wasn’t contracting to Amazon, Amazon uses similar companies. My real issue with Chuq’s analysis is that is interprets the Mother Jones article as some sort of “war on work.” Chuq writes:

Are we as first worlders getting to the point where hard physical work is somehow evil? Maybe we need to get out from behind keyboards more often, then. Sit down and talk to your plumber, next time you hire them to root out a clogged sewer. Or your gardener, next time they come in to mow and blow your lawn. Or when you go to a restaurant, sit where you can watch the kitchen and see just how hard the wait staff and line cooks work — for a lot less money than they deserve. And don’t be stingy on the tip…

I’m really kind of confused by the Mother Jones piece. It seems to be demonizing — work. have there been abuses at some of Amazon’s warehouse facilities? yes. Well, guess what. abusive bosses exist. they exist in high tech as well, but here in Silicon valley, when you keep a sleeping bag under your desk, it is a badge of honor to some (hint: the company is still taking advantage of you).

There is no doubt that many — far too many — so-called “white-collar” workers look down on physical labor with disdain. That is a real problem and one that I agree needs to be stamped out. However, that absolutely not the take-away that I got from McClelland’s report. When I read passages such as:

They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they’re gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they’re gonna increase the goals. But they’ll be yelling at you all the time. It’s like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they’re going to tell you, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,’ to make you work harder. Don’t say, ‘This is the best I can do.’ Say, ‘I’ll try,’ even if you know you can’t do it. Because if you say, ‘This is the best I can do,’ they’ll let you go.

…and…

In the center of the room, a video plays loudly and continuously on a big screen. Even more than you are hurting the company, a voice-over intones as animated people do things like accidentally oversleep, you are hurting yourself when you are late because you will be penalized on a point system, and when you get too many points, you’re fired—unless you’re late at any point during your first week, in which case you are instantly fired. Also because when you’re late or sick you miss the opportunity to maximize your overtime pay. And working more than eight hours is mandatory.

…and…

Well, what if I do start crying?” I ask the woman who warns me to keep it together no matter how awfully I’m treated. “Are they really going to fire me for that?”

Yes,” she says. “There’s 16 other people who want your job. Why would they keep a person who gets emotional, especially in this economy?”

…and…

Inside Amalgamated, an employee’s first day is training day. Though we’re not paid to be here until 6, we have been informed that we need to arrive at 5. If we don’t show up in time to stand around while they sort out who we are and where they’ve put our ID badges, we could miss the beginning of training, which would mean termination.

…and…

The programs for our scanners are designed with the assumption that we disposable employees don’t know what we’re doing. Find a Rob Zombie Voodoo Doll in the blue section of the Rockies sector in the third bin of the A-level in row Z42, my scanner tells me. But if I punch into my scanner that it’s not there, I have to prove it by scanning every single other item in the bin, though I swear on my life there’s no Rob Zombie Voodoo Doll in this pile of 30 individually wrapped and bar-coded batteries that take me quite a while to beep one by one. It could be five minutes before I can move on to, and make it to, and find, my next item. That lapse is supposed to be mere seconds.

…and…

It’s brave of these women to keep their phones in the break room, where theft is so high—they can’t keep them in their cars if they want to use them during the day, because we aren’t supposed to leave the premises without permission, and they can’t take them onto the warehouse floor, because “nothing but the clothes on your backs” is allowed on the warehouse floor (anything on your person that Amalgamated sells can be confiscated—”And what does Amalgamated sell?” they asked us in training. “Everything!”)

…and…

Temporary staffers aren’t legally entitled to decent health care because they are just short-term “contractors” no matter how long they keep the same job. They aren’t entitled to raises, either, and they don’t get vacation and they’d have a hell of a time unionizing and they don’t have the privilege of knowing if they’ll have work on a particular day or for how long they’ll have a job. And that is how you slash prices and deliver products superfast and offer free shipping and still post profits in the millions or billions.

I don’t hear the whine of the privileged — afraid of a little physical labor. I hear a complete disregard for human dignity which, had the company been named “Apple” and the reporter been a bloated, self-absorbed stage actor, would have resulted in howls of slacktivist rage and at least one online petition. No, this is a portrait of an industry that treats human beings like automatons because it has realized that in this economy human beings are cheaper and more easily replaced than robots.